By Thomas Ferraro and Richard Cowan -
The US Senate is under the gun to pass a transportation bill that would rev up road construction and provide or save millions of jobs. But in the month since the chamber started considering the bill, it has faced gridlock worse than a Los Angeles freeway at rush hour. Feuding parties loaded up the highway bill with more than 100 amendments covering everything from birth control to foreign money laundering. After weeks of partisan squabbling, passage remains uncertain.
At one point, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid vented a common frustration. "I don't know why everything we do has to be a fight," he said. "Not a disagreement, a fight."
The Senate, long described as the "world's greatest deliberative body," for two centuries stood as an elite and powerful chamber that offered a reasoned counterpart to the larger, more impulsive House of Representatives. But in recent years it has strayed far off course, according to interviews with 10 current and former members.
Faced with pressing issues like a ballooning national debt, an ailing healthcare system and the threat of climate change, the Senate now consumes its time with contentious debate that usually ends with no action.
For three years, the chamber has been paralysed by routine budget bills. Judicial nominations languish, even when they have bipartisan support. And some of the Senate's most dramatic moments, broadcast on national television, are little more than calculated brinkmanship to stir up voters. The poisonous atmosphere is taking its toll. Members complain of wasted time and thwarted legislative goals. The retirement announcement last week from Republican Senator Olympia Snowe, who expressed frustration at Senate inaction, prompted others to join in with similar assessments.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham told reporters Snowe's decision should be "a wakeup call to Congress." "We have reached a point where we do so little and waste so much time that it really does, I'm sure, weigh heavily on us all," Assistant Senate Democratic Leader Dick Durbin, who is close to President Barack Obama, said in an interview.
Echoed first-term Republican Senator Mike Johanns, a former Nebraska governor, "We came to Washington to do things. We need to do them." Historically, the Senate has played a pivotal role in American political life. Besides considering proposed laws, it has the power to conduct impeachment trials, approve presidential nominees, investigate government wrongdoing and approve treaties.
Its members included titans from both parties — Democrats like Lyndon Johnson and Edward Kennedy, and Republicans like Bob Dole and Howard Baker — who fought hard but still guided landmark legislation that changed American society.
So prestigious was the Senate that 16 of 44 presidents, including Obama, are alumni. The founding fathers envisioned the Senate as a deliberative body that would balance the more raucous 435-member House. President George Washington theorised that it would "cool" legislation, just as a saucer cools hot tea. But the Senate Historical Office website illustrates how dramatically these early hopes have shifted.
It displays a 95-year history of Senate "cloture motions." When a minority of senators oppose a bill, a vote on a cloture motion can remove the roadblock. Their frequency gauges Senate co-operation, or lack of it.
In 2009-2010, the first two years of Obama's presidency, 137 time-consuming "cloture motions" were filed in the Senate. The total in 1965-66, when civil rights battles divided the chamber: 7. In 1917-18, when the Senate began keeping cloture vote records: 2.
Procedural spats are only one measure. Partisan fights last year defined both the Senate and the House, where Tea Party-dominated battles deepened the divide on tax and spending issues.